As American Pharoah came out of the far turn and squared his shoulders to let his rider Victor Espinoza stare down the long withering stretch of Belmont Park, a sense of inevitability surged through this mammoth old grandstand. The fans in a capacity crowd strained on the tips of their toes and let out a roar from deep in their souls. It was going to end, finally — this 37-year search for a great racehorse.
No, a battered old sport was looking for an immortal thoroughbred, one worthy to stand alongside Sir Barton and Assault, War Admiral and Whirlaway, Count Fleet and Citation, a horse able to earn the title of a Triple Crown champion.
There had been only 11 of them in history, and America had elected five presidents, fought three wars and lived through at least three economic downturns since Affirmed had last completed the feat in 1978. In the interim, 12 other very good racehorses had pulled into the starting gate at this grand old racetrack on Long Island with a chance to become the next great horse, only to fall short at the hands of a great rival, as Sunday Silence did to Easy Goer in 1989 or as Real Quiet did in 1998 in a heartbreaking photo finish, or to find the mile-and-a-half distance of the Belmont Stakes just too much, as California Chrome did last year.
But as American Pharoah bounded into the stretch amid a deafening roar, the memories of the gritty Affirmed, the speedy Seattle Slew (1977) and that tremendous machine Secretariat (1973) were summoned from backside to grandstand, and rightfully so.
No one doubted that American Pharoah was about to enter the history books. He was bouncing down the lane as if jumping from one trampoline to another, and no one was going to catch him.
The colt’s trainer, Bob Baffert, was transported. He, too, had previously come here certain that he had a horse that belonged among the giants of racing, only to feel his heart ascend to his throat. In 1997, Silver Charm had been caught two jumps before the wire by Touch Gold, a rival he did not see. In 1998, Baffert watched as Victory Gallop got a half-nostril ahead of Real Quiet at the wire. In 2002, he watched War Emblem stumble out of the gate and lose any chance to win.
“The crowd was just thundering,” he said. “I was enjoying the crowd and the noise and everything happening.”
In the saddle, Espinoza felt a rush that had twice eluded him. He was on California Chrome last year and War Emblem for Baffert, only to remember how two very good colts staggered beneath him and the collective gasp of more than 100,000 disappointed people rustled within him.
But not this time — Espinoza dropped the reins on his colt and let the muscled bay take him home. When he was a boy in his native Mexico, Espinoza had been afraid of horses. Now, at 43, he knew they were a gift. Beneath him, American Pharoah’s strides were getting longer and longer, but Espinoza felt as if he were riding on a cloud.
“You don’t even feel him,” he said. “It feels like you are going in slow motion.”
Espinoza was confident entering the Kentucky Derby. American Pharoah, after all, had been the 2-year-old champion. He was exuberant three weeks ago in Baltimore at the Preakness, when the skies opened up before the race and gave American Pharoah the sloppy racetrack that he prefers and skims over like a jet ski.
But Espinoza was even more confident Saturday in the jockeys’ room, and then downright cocky after he met Baffert in the paddock.
“He’s ready,” Baffert told him. “Ride him with confidence.”
When American Pharoah leaned back in the gate as the bell rang and the doors opened, the colt broke a step slow. Espinoza did not even worry. Within the first two jumps, American Pharoah had catapulted ahead of his seven rivals and glided into the first turn like a marble circling a roulette wheel.
“He was right in the lead where I wanted to be, in front of everybody,” Espinoza said.
Materiality gave chase for a mile, but American Pharoah picked up his tempo and shook that rival off at the mile.
“Steady, steady,” Espinoza said to himself.
Mubtaahij, from Dubai, took a run at him on the far turn, but got within only three lengths before peeling back. Revving up outside him, however, was the late-running Frosted. His jockey, Joel Rosario, scrubbed the gray colt’s neck and got within four, three and two and a half lengths, but then American Pharoah stretched his stride as if he were elastic and snapped off to a four-length lead. When Espinoza crossed the finish line five and a half lengths ahead, he finally allowed a smile to curl at the corner of his mouth and a raucous celebration to reverberate deep in his bones.
In the record books, it will say American Pharoah covered the marathon distance in 2 minutes 26.65 seconds, paid his backers $3.50 on a $2 bet and fattened his earnings to more than $4.5 million for his owner, Ahmed Zayat.
But as Espinoza galloped American Pharoah the length of the grandstand and let a thunderstruck crowd, many with tears in their eyes, cheer the ethereal performance of a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, he could barely catch his breath.
“Wow,” he told the outrider alongside him. “Wow. He’s just an amazing horse.”
Horse lovers and horse players alike have waited a long time to hear that.